Masks will remain optional for British Columbia students returning to classes next month, despite guidelines issued this weekend by the Public Health Agency of Canada recommending them for older children.
Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer, said at a news conference Monday that masks have a limited place in the plan to reopen B.C. schools, but they are one measure among others.
She said masks can interfere with students’ ability to learn, but they can help in situations where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as in hallways.
“It is a challenge. To think of, particularly a young child, 10, 11, 12, sitting all day in a classroom with a mask on is probably not realistic,” she said. “There’s lots of things we can do to make those environments safe without requiring someone to sit with a mask on for long periods of time.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada developed guidelines, released this weekend, in collaboration with public health experts that recommend non-medical masks for children at the age of 10 – around Grade 4 – and older based on current evidence of COVID-19 transmission.
Ontario has announced students in Grade 4 and up will be required to wear masks, including in class, while younger students will be encouraged but not mandated to do the same. Alberta is requiring masks for students Grade 4 and up in common areas, but not in class if students are working at their desks. Nova Scotia is requiring them for high-school students in common areas, but not in class.
Dr. Henry said parents need to be teaching children about where and how to use masks.
The BC Teachers’ Federation is uneasy with the province’s approach, preferring a more-mandatory masks policy.
Federation president Teri Mooring said in an interview Monday that masks need to be more widely worn and available in schools given evolving messaging, recommendations and research around them. “I think that masks should be supplied in anticipation of a higher demand,” Ms. Mooring said.
Among her concerns, Ms. Mooring said planned class sizes may work against effective physical distancing in the school system.
“Currently physical distancing, especially with a 100-per-cent return of students, is very challenging in our current education system with maximum class sizes being 30 and many schools having maximum class sizes. Many schools are overcrowded.”
She said there should be smaller class sizes or the wider provision of masks.
Ms. Mooring said she respects the recommendations of the Provincial Health Officer and understands the science underlying them.
“However, the Ministry of Education has the opportunity, and I think the responsibility, to go above and beyond the provincial health recommendations as needed,” she said.
Ms. Mooring said work continues on the back-to-school plan, including mask usage, and she said there are four provincial working groups looking at school reopenings. Group members include teachers, parents and others in the education system.
The province is buying enough reusable masks that they will be available to staff if they choose to wear one and for all students who need to travel on school buses or public transit or are in a “learning group” – a term that refers to the clusters of groups students will be organized into when back at school.
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